Highlighting 49ers' Deepest, Thinnest Positions Ahead of 2014 Season
Minicamps are finally upon us as the San Francisco 49ers aim to kick off another season with deep championship expectations.
Once again sporting one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, the 49ers will have some new faces in the picture with key veterans from 2013 gone. The overall roster is far from flawless, however, as some positions are vulnerable in terms of overall talent entering the 2014 season.
As training camp approaches, some positions are clearly deeper than others. Of course, depth is one of the key elements in football, where one injury could sway the fortunes of an entire season.
A look at the roster is enough to imagine worst-case scenarios, making some of the biggest holes easy to spot. An injury to a starting quarterback is usually enough to doom any season, however, so we'll skip the obvious for the purposes of this list.
So, with both quality and sheer numbers in mind, which positions on the 49ers roster are best (and worst) equipped for 2014?
No. 3 Thinnest: Outside Linebacker
Starters (Projected): Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks
Reserves: Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier, Aaron Lynch, Chase Thomas
At face value, this group may be one of the most talented on the entire roster. That evaluation, however, is jeopardized by the uncertain status of All-Pro pass-rusher Aldon Smith.
According to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, Smith is expected to report to training camp before his sentencing hearing on July 25. With three felony charges facing him, his status beyond that court date is far less clear.
If Smith is out for any amount of time, the 49ers will still be able to rely on Pro Bowler Ahmad Brooks on the opposite side. And reserve linebackers Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier admirably filled in for Smith last year during his extended absence.
Any losses beyond Smith would spell a potential disaster, however. Rookie linebacker Aaron Lynch is raw and transitioning from defensive end in college, while newcomer Chase Thomas spent time on four different practice squads as a rookie in 2013.
This unit can handle one sizable loss with a proven contingency plan. After Plan B, the rotation would take a sizable hit at a critical position.
No. 3 Deepest: Running Back
Starter (Projected): Frank Gore
Reserves: Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde, Marcus Lattimore, LaMichael James
As if the third-leading active rusher in the NFL wasn't enough, the 49ers have added sizable reinforcements for their running game behind Frank Gore.
For starters, veterans Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James return for another season. James has expressed his frustration over his limited carries (per Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com), but he may be on the outside looking in as he enters his third season.
The 49ers spent a second-round pick on Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde for a reason, likely viewing his 230-pound frame as ideal for goal-line and short-yardage situations. Former South Carolina star Marcus Lattimore will also see his first action after being drafted in the fourth round of 2013. He is still recovering from a series of knee injuries suffered in college but appears ready to contribute in 2014.
Gore has largely carried the load from the RB position over his nine professional seasons, but the 31-year-old back will sometimes need to be spelled during the regular season in order to having something left in the tank for the playoffs.
This year's reserves at running back include four capable backups, all 25-years-old or younger and each drafted in the fourth round or higher in their respective drafts. Even if all four do not make the final roster, this talented but unproven group should be able to occasionally relieve their legendary teammate.
No. 2 Thinnest: Inside Linebacker
Starters (Projected): Patrick Willis, Michael Wilhoite
Reserves: Chris Borland, Nick Moody, Shayne Skov
Injured: NaVorro Bowman
All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman is expected to return around midseason, but where does that leave the 49ers for the first eight games?
The unit is led by fellow All-Pro in Patrick Willis, but Bowman's replacement at the other inside spot has not yet been determined. Veteran Michael Wilhoite is the favorite after filling in well for two starts in relief of Willis in 2013. He ended the season with 34 total tackles.
However, as noted by Bleacher Report's Bryan Knowles, several other options are now in play following the 2014 NFL draft. The 49ers selected linebacker Chris Borland in the third round, while Stanford product Shayne Skov was added as an undrafted free agent.
Borland is slightly undersized at 5'11" but was also named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. Skov, on the other hand, brings ideal size to the table while facing a more difficult road to making the final roster.
Assuming that Wilhoite starts, the trio behind Willis and Wilhoite has combined for just four games of NFL experience, all by second-year pro Nick Moody. With Bowman already facing a lengthy recovery, the 49ers can hardly afford another loss at this position.
No. 2 Deepest: Wide Receiver
Starters (Projected): Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson
Reserves: Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, Brandon Lloyd, Jon Baldwin
To start, not all seven names will appear on the 49ers' Week 1 roster, especially with special teamer Kassim Osgood also in the picture.
While injuries and underperformance have left the 49ers bare at receiver in recent years, general manager Trent Baalke went above and beyond to ensure no repeat performance in 2014. The trade with the Buffalo Bills for three-time 1,000-yard receiver Stevie Johnson was just the icing on the cake.
Veteran Brandon Lloyd brings 5,695 career receiving yards to the table and Jon Baldwin was a first-round pick in 2011. Yet it remains possible that both miss the final cut.
Second-year pro Quinton Patton managed just three receptions in his rookie season, but James Brady of Niners Nation notes the receiver's significant upside. Rookie Bruce Ellington should also be a lock to make the roster after being selected in the fourth round of this year's draft.
Starting receivers Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are clearly the top dogs on this depth chart, but never before have they been able to rely on so many quality players beneath them. One injury will not be enough to derail quarterback Colin Kaepernick's passing attack this season, as he now has the weapons to take the next step in his development.
If the offense evolves to fit this personnel, this receiver corps has the makings of an exciting group heading into the new season.
No. 1 Thinnest: Cornerback
Starters (Projected): Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver
Reserves: Chris Cook, Jimmie Ward, Perrish Cox, Eric Wright, Dontae Johnson, Darryl Morris
Starting cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver have combined for just 13 career starts in their pro careers, but the entire depth chart is up in the air as minicamps open.
Former Minnesota Vikings corner Chris Cook has been working with the first-team defense thus far, according to Taylor Price of 49ers.com. After mostly disappointing in four seasons in Minnesota, however, it's tough to envision Cook overtaking Culliver who has experience in the 49ers system.
Rookie defensive back Jimmie Ward will miss time until training camp, according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also told Eric Branch of The San Francisco Chronicle that he believes any delays in Ward's arrival will, at least initially, hold back San Francisco's 2014 first-round pick.
Veterans Perrish Cox and Eric Wright bring experience and familiarity to the table, but both are far from reliable starters at this point in their respective careers.
Brock is the surest thing of the bunch, but he still has much to prove after a breakout year in 2013. Entering his first full season as a starter, the 49ers will need Brock to maintain his brilliant play to keep this depleted group in their specific roles.
Otherwise, things could get ugly through the air for this defense.
No. 1 Deepest: Interior Offensive Line
Starters (Projected): Mike Iupati, Daniel Kilgore, Alex Boone
Reserves: Marcus Martin, Joe Looney, Jonathan Martin, Adam Snyder
Center is a bit up in the air following the departure of former starter Jonathan Goodwin, but the overall depth of the 49ers offensive line is incredible.
Former backup Daniel Kilgore appeared to be the starter at center after signing a contract extension in February, but he will now be pushed by this year's third-round pick, Marcus Martin. Considered the No. 1 center prospect in the draft by NFL Network's Mike Mayock (via NFL.com), the USC product should immediately contend for the starting job.
Veteran Adam Snyder returns to the fold as well, having played nearly every spot on the line over the course of his career and five times starting 10 games or more. Third-year guard Joe Looney lacks experience in regular-season action, but he also boasts two years in the system and plenty of size.
Former Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin brings plenty of potential, but his versatility could make him a great utility lineman in San Francisco. He will be given a chance at guard (per David Fucillo of Niners Nation), but the former Stanford standout also brings extended starting experience at tackle.
Overall, this unit is well equipped behind All-Pro guard Mike Iupati and proven starter Alex Boone. This offensive line is one the best in the NFL, and the ability of depth players to step up and fill in in the absence of key contributors is not lost in that assessment.
The offense will be under much more pressure to perform in 2014, and that will start with the offensive line. Thankfully, this group is prepared for the worst with excellent talent from top to bottom.
All statistics and accolades according to Pro Football Reference, unless otherwise noted. Tom Smeaton is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and can be found on Twitter by following @ByTomSmeaton.